Rapid recent changes in patterns of family life and reproduction are nothing short of revolutionary.

Men’s economic role in women’s lives is decreasing. In the U.S., women now outnumber men in higher education; young, single childless women earn more than their male peers; and according to author Liza Mundy (The Richer Sex) in almost 40% of marriages, the woman earns more than the man.


Other speakeranncritts at a recent forum at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.   reinforced the narrative of family upheaval.   The percentage of adult Americans who were married hit an all-time low in 2011. Forty percent of American children are born to unmarried parents.   Seen in the light of all of these developments, gay marriage is just one aspect of a historic restructuring of intimate relations all over the developed world, including Western Europe.

Not least is a dramatic reduction in fertility rates. The percentage of women who remain childless in the U.S. and Western Europe hovers around 20%, roughly double the percentage of 20 years ago. Throughout the developed world, there is, in the words of French feminist Elizabeth Badinter, “some unspoken resistance to motherhood.”

In more than 90 countries, birth rates are below replacement level. This is true not just in North America and Western Europe, but in Japan, China, Brazil, the state of Kerala in southern India, and of all places, Iran. Even Mexico is on the verge of zero population growth.

Is all of this good or bad? Not surprisingly, there is deep disagreement on how to answer that question.

Those who are concerned about population growth and its attendant damage to the environment, welcome the decline in fertility rates. With world population at 7 billion and heading toward 8 to 10 billion by 2050, with arable land and drinkable water per person rapidly shrinking, and biodiversity, including fish stocks, crashing, lower birth rates are a blessing that can’t happen fast enough.

Similarly, no one wants men out of the family picture, but those who support female equality are happy with a world in which motherhood and one’s lifestyle are a choice, not an obligation.

On the other hand, traditionalists and pro-natalists warn that the demise of the traditional, male-headed household and falling birthrates are a portent of national decline. Who is going to support our older citizens if we are not producing enough younger workers? In the U.S. there are already only 3.3 contributors for every beneficiary of Social Security, a ratio that is expected to drop by another 30% by 2030. The situation is even worse in most European countries and Japan. China, thanks to the one child policy, will soon be facing the same demographic dilemma.

Population issues were never mentioned during the discussion at the New America Foundation. But authors Mundy and Brigid Schulte (Overwhelmed) did shed light on why younger American women are afraid to have children, as they described the horrendous time pressures on working mothers and the frequent lack of solvent males ready to step up and support a family. Schulte especially elaborated on the discouraging failure of American workplace culture to adapt to the new gender realities. “Working women who get pregnant are actually being told to get an abortion,” she reported. “They are told, ‘you have to choose: your job or your baby.’ … The workplace is still stuck in the 1950’s.”

The lone man on the panel, Philip Longman, after dolefully elaborating on the decline of traditional marriage and child-rearing around the globe, commented that “the one countertrend in birth rates is among fundamentalists.”

In other words, only in communities where women are clearly subservient can the old norm of “be fruitful and multiply” be preserved or restored.

If true, this leads to a paradoxical conclusion. The twin demographic problems of overpopulation, most acute in Nigeria and other extremely poor nations of Africa and south Asia, and a birth dearth in developed countries, apparently have the same solution. Give women what they want.

Evidence is overwhelming that when women in traditional societies have education, legal and property rights, and a chance to practice birth control, they seize the opportunity to have fewer children. Where this has happened, birth rates have plummeted in one generation. This has happened all over the globe, from South America to Southeast Asia.

By the same token, when women in developed countries have access to a wide array of life choices, they will respond by having more children than in countries where women are faced with that either-or choice of your baby or your job.

The highest birthrates in the West are in countries like Sweden and France, which have the highest rates of working women and the most family-friendly workplaces. The lowest birthrates are in the more traditional countries like Germany, Italy, Greece, Russia, and Japan, where women are encouraged to embrace traditional motherhood once they have a child. Demographers have dubbed this the “fertility paradox.”

If policymakers in countries with declining populations really want women to embrace motherhood, they are going to have to make it more compatible with the financial and domestic equality that childless women enjoy.

And world population will never stabilize at sustainable levels until women everywhere are far freer than they are today.   This is the deeper paradox of fertility. And it portends even greater change in family life and human reproduction than anything we have seen yet.

Ann Crittenden is a member of European Affairs’ Editorial Board at the European Institute